PhD Life

Battling PhD perfectionism.

Academic environments and PhDs can be catalysts for perfectionism, a feeling most PhD students are familiar with. Fortunately, overcoming perfectionism is mainly centred around how you frame and think about your goals.

Perfectionism is a common experience we can all relate too, especially PhD students. Like a lot of things, perfectionism overlaps with a few other common feelings PhD students experience. Things like analysis paralysis and imposter syndrome, all intersect with perfectionism. It’s a chicken and egg kind of situation. Maybe the perfectionism comes from fears of not being good enough in academia (i.e., imposter syndrome), or perhaps perfectionism and wanting to be perfect contributes towards thoughts that make you feel like an imposter. It’s hard to pinpoint, and typically why they are used interchangeably. There isn’t necessarily a correct term or phrase, but it’s more about naming the feeling. Once we name it and can label it, it becomes significantly easier to work with and manage.

Because of this, much of the content in this post is likely to overlap with some of our other posts. It’s recommended to read both posts on analysis paralysis and imposter syndrome as well – they might provide a similar, yet slightly different viewpoint which may resonate more with you. The overall mission should be about improving your well-being and by having language and a framework to make sense of your experiences. Owning how you feel is typically the starting point for anything.

Perfectionism is essentially that feeling of striving for flawlessness and subsequently is sometimes accompanied with critical self-evaluation, negative self-talk, unrealistic goals, which can fuel feelings of low self-esteem, low mood, and depression. Like most experiences, you don’t necessarily need to experience these feelings constantly or all the time, sometimes they can just linger in the background. You may still function really well and operate on a daily basis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing well on the inside. And it goes without saying, for anything that is having a negative impact on your well-being you should always speak to others about it – friends, family, and medical professionals. A really difficult thing with perfectionism as well is that it’s an unhealthy belief or pattern that gets positively reinforced. Every time you engage with perfectionistic beliefs or behaviours, one of two things usually happen. First, you may receive praise, a congratulations, or some other form of positive acknowledgement. This encourages you to do more or repeat the process. You now have validity for trying to be perfect, so you’ll do it again. Alternatively, and what’s more common, is that you receive the opposite. Negative feedback, constructive criticism, or just a minor point that doesn’t necessarily count as a ‘positive’ remark. Thus, you must try harder to reach this unattainable goal and before you know it, you’re in a negative cycle. With every outcome, perfectionism grows just a little bit more.

It’s not exactly the easiest thing to move through perfectionism and overcome it. The best place to start is to firstly realise that nobody is perfect. Academia has this strange way of creating a façade that everyone knows what they’re doing. It can often feel taboo to talk out and say you don’t understand something or to say you don’t know the answer. This breeds an eco-system and environment where because you don’t see other people ask questions, neither do you. It creates a false pre-tense that you must know what you’re doing to be respected and considered. Being aware that other people experience this on a day-to-day basis can really help. Again, another reason to have a break from your PhD and have a life beyond your studies. Perfectionism is so common in academia, it’s probably a term you’ve come across before – which again reinforces the fact that this is a common experience.

One of the main strategies to overcome perfectionism is to re-define your goals. Often, having an unrealistic and unfeasible goal will lead to more negative self-talk and criticism – because hey, you’re less likely to achieve something if you make it more inherently complex. A nice strategy would be to either divide your goal into smaller ones, which reduces the negative feedback loop, or at least factor in iterations and mistakes as part of the process. Thus, making mistakes is allowed which will reduce the intensity and negative thoughts around perfectionism. During your PhD this could look like a lot of different things. Say you have a goal of writing a ‘perfect’ manuscript. Obviously, this is unfeasible, especially for your first draft, but if your goal is to just write a first draft (whereby you acknowledge it isn’t meant to be perfect and constructive feedback is needed), then it will feel more manageable and positive. Another component of tweaking your goals is to make them tangible and useful. For instance, if we take the same example, aiming to write a perfect manuscript probably isn’t useful. In fact, aiming to just write a paper in the first place is useful as it will move you towards your thesis and completion of a PhD. Trying to write the best one – not so much. Think of this more along the lines of, your work doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be marginally better or the same as what is currently out there. Your paper doesn’t need to revolutionise your field, it just needs to add to what already exists. Your theories or ideas don’t need to go down in the history books, they just need to be slightly more novel than what we currently know. Slow and steady.

In essence, a lot of tips to working through perfectionism centre on reframing. Reframe what’s normal and reframe your goals. Adjusting your attitude and belief around what you think ‘perfect’ should look like will improve your wellbeing. You do not necessarily have to change what you do but focus more on changing what you think you should do. Subtle distinction that is likely to make a world of difference. There’s information everywhere about perfectionism, this post is merely just a steppingstone to uncovering this in more detail.

Last but not least, know that battling perfectionism is a slow process. You don’t have to overcome it in one day! That would almost be too perfect (ironically).  

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